Last month, the nations of Egypt, The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and head-honcho Saudi Arabia united in a joint effort for a total blockade on their smaller neighbour, Qatar. A list of 13 demands had been drawn-up, and a period of 10 days given to comply. Qatar, the world’s richest nation per-capita, has resisted the voided, but now reinstated list of demands.
The apparent absence of an inciting incident gives this spontaneous force against Qatar an air of confusion. Cited reasons range from affiliations with Iran, the Al Jazeera news network, and Qatar’s alleged support for regional terror groups. But these accusatory motives are part of much more personal grievances.
Geography makes Qatar particularly vulnerable to embargoes by the Middle-Eastern superpowers. Qatar is a tiny peninsula pointing off Saudi Arabia’s Eastern coast and up to 40% of its food travels over the Saudi border. On top of sealing this border, the four nations have discontinued all land, sea and air traffic, have ejected its diplomats from Qatar’s capital, Doha and ordered Qatari citizens to leave the involved nations.
Saudi/Qatari tensions have been building for decades, beginning with 1991’s Battle of Khafji, a joint-defensive to rid the Saudi city of Khafji of Sadam Hussein’s Iraqi forces. While successful, Qatari forces accidentally rained friendly fire on the late-arriving Saudi troops. Forgiven but not forgotten, anguish is expressed largely in the form of recurring border disputes. Then military commander and previous emir, Hamad al-Thani, provoked and mocked the already sensitive Saudis over a border dispute the following year, threatening them to “answer to the barrel of a gun”.
Saudi Arabia has long held influence in Qatar through royal marriages. But this tradition was broken by Hamad’s father and predecessor Khalifa al-Thani who instead married into Dubai’s royal family. Hamad then followed suit by marrying commoner Sheikha Mozah, angering and embarrassing the Saudis further.
The demands themselves have been widely criticised as a list of accusations rather than a plausible resolution, possibly to deflect similar criticisms of the four attacking nations. Some of the demands include: severing ties with Iran, shutting down an unfinished military base in Turkey, discontinuing funding for terror groups (ISIS, The Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, Nusra Front, Hezbollah), stopping support for political opponents hence creating regional tension, reparations for Saudi deaths at Khafji, but most importantly to shut down Qatar’s Al Jazeera News Network.
Al Jazeera was founded in 1996 by Hamad al-Thani, claiming to be the first independent news channel in the Arab world. Prior to Al-Jazeera, news reporting in the Middle-East was largely used to further political agendas and glorify political leaders. By countering this, Al Jazeera’s Arab voice left regional leaders both angered and worried.
Two decades later and the Arab world, especially Egypt, continues its disgruntled tone of disapproval toward Al Jazeera. In 2013 three journalists were imprisoned, with sentences ranging from 5-10 years on allegations of biased coverage of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. All three journalists have since been pardoned.
But again in late 2016, Mahmoud Hussein, Al Jazeera journalist and Doha based Egyptian was arrested when visiting family in Cairo. His charges are “…incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos”. Seven Al Jazeera staff have been imprisoned in Egypt since 2013 and behind China and Turkey, Egypt is the third most likely country to be jailed as a journalist.
Adding another angle to this already dynamic feud is Saudi Arabia’s arch rival and Qatar’s staunch ally, Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a Cold War for decades, which can be broken down into a list of proxy wars throughout the middle east. Proxy war is indirect; not declaring war on each other, but instead supporting opposing sides within another nation’s conflict. At present, Saudi Arabia and Iran provide arms, finance and strategy to opposing sides of the civil wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this year, Iran and Qatar announced the reopening the SouthPars/North Dome Reservoir, the world’s largest natural gas field which the nations both share territory of. The immeasurable financial benefits seem to intimidate the Saudis, who are using the blockade to inhibit Qatar’s strengthened relationship with Iran. The sanctions against Qatar were announced not two weeks after Donald Trump, Saudi ally and infamous Iran detractor, had visited the Saudi Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, The UAE and Bahrain seem to want regime change in Qatar, but this is a double-edged sword. All countries (except Egypt) have long-standing monarchal systems in place. Questioning the legitimacy of Qatar’s monarchy in-turn poses similar questions at their own. If they get their wish, and the al-Thanis are removed, this suggests they can be stripped of their own forms or hereditary rule just as easily. One only has to look at Gaddafi or Assad to see just how volatile Middle-Eastern monarchies can be.
There is more suggesting incompetence on part of the aggressors, than guilt on part of the accused. Accusations of terrorism, dubious alliances and biased media coverage are difficult to separate from a deep sense of self-reflective paranoia.